Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Jewel Box Garden

A Book For Avant-gardist Gardening Snobs

Author Thomas Hobbs is, at least in the persona he presents in this 2004 book, an avant-gardist gardening snob. He sees gardening as a fashion-driven art, where trendy plants are to be discarded as soon as they become too popular with the petit bourgeoisie, for whom his contempt is made clear on almost every page of text. Some of this stuff can't be spoofed, because it's impossible to be more catty than Hobbs here. (The following quotes will work better if you imagine them spoken by David Sidaris or a lisping Harvey Korman.)

Some gardeners will never learn the art of plant assemblage... As I drive by their predictable efforts, I often wonder, "Is Life Easier?"
Being a left-handed, Gemini breach-birth allows me to love tetraploid daylilies. It is who I am botanically.
Bowling balls are appropriate in Marcia Donahue's garden/gallery in Berkeley, California, because she did it first.
Hobbs is obsessed with rejection of the common and the clichéd, but most of his featured gardens also look alike, in part because they're almost all small shaded urban gardens in the coastal Northwest, but more notably because they eschew flowers in favor of foliage plants - mostly bright or spiky - with color from kitschy cast-offs and outré sculpture, including flesh-colored ceramic penises.

In my (hardly original) opinion, a big problem with most people's enjoyment of the arts today is that the field has already done what is pretty or handsome, and since its current practitioners are jaded by their predecessors' work and aspire to being original, they must often produce what most nonspecialists consider ugly. This is notably a problem with architecture and oil painting (and classical music) by about World War I, and haute couture since the Kennedy Administration. So far horticulture has largely escaped the curse of avant-gardist ugliness, but not in this book.

I wondered whether it was fair to Hobbs to say he has passed a step beyond "Shocking Beauty" (the title of his 1999 book) to where much of this book is ugly, but then I came to his penultimate page of prose:
I have noticed a switch in gardening, from "pretty" to what I call "the New Ugly." I find this fascinating and very, very attractive. In gardening, ugly has been redefined by brilliant plantsmen and -women who get absolutely no thrill from trying to make a pretty picture. By increasing the dosage of all that is weird and unexpected, these thrillseekers are creating powerful, unforgettable experiences.
Umh, no it hasn't! If we wanted "powerful, unforgettable experiences" of ugliness, we would just move into a junkyard next to an oil refinery! That said, if the book's title or dust-jacket reflected this decadent philosophy, I could rate it 4 stars and say that it was suitable for people who agree with Hobbs' pro-ugly position.

Perhaps oddly, Hobbs' Vancouver garden is larger, far more colorful and floriferous, and far more beautiful, than the preceding gardens. Hobbs doesn't fail to add a campy dramatic element, however, to his discovery of the Vancouver house:
I will never forget ringing the doorbell, expecting "Max," [from Sunset Boulevard] or at least Harvey Korman dressed as "Max," to open the door. Instead, a very short Alfred Hitchcock type greeted us, with a badly-wigged woman peering over his shoulder.
As you might have guessed, the text of this book is more about Hobbs' persona than about gardening. But it isn't until the very last page of prose that we learn exactly how, for Hobbs, the garden is therapy - about talking to plants, which most people can't do ("and it shows"!) - and about remembering gardeners who gave him plants and then died of AIDS. Life is a veil of tears, so maybe we should cut him some slack, even if we are not in love with ugliness.

(FYI, I have nothing against snobbery in gardening, and hope to increase my own. But a snobbery based on beauty (or erudition or even class) is one thing; a snobbery based on scarcity and ugliness, quite another).